Lithuania: inside Vilnius prison during pandemic, "getting sick is inevitable"

The coronavirus observes no walls – in Vilnius Penitentiary, the outbreak is difficult to control, as some inmates refuse to get tested, while facilities for quarantining infected people are limited.

In late December, 398 prisoners lived in Vilnius Penitentiary. Since September, 59 of them had been infected with the coronavirus, while another 54 cases were diagnosed among the facility’s staff. Three seriously ill convicts were sent to Prison Hospital in Pravieniškės near Kaunas; none have died.

“Before autumn, we had no coronavirus cases. But now, we are facing an outbreak. Here, the risk that the virus will spread is higher because this is a closed place,” said Romas Ostanavičius, deputy director of Vilnius Penitentiary.

He shows around the facility. Disinfectant dispensers are everywhere and both inmates and employees are required to constantly disinfect their hands. Disinfectant, however, is not allowed inside the cells.

“To prevent convicts from drinking it. We had such cases,” Ostanavičius explains.

The deputy director shows us the way to the medical office of Vilnius Penitentiary. Every early morning, healthcare administrator Vita Subačiutė and her colleague start testing inmates for the coronavirus. They test around 30 prisoners and 20 staff members every day.

The spread of the virus inside the facility is unpredictable. Sometimes, there are up to ten new weekly cases of Covid-19. In other weeks, healthcare workers find no infections, Ostanavičius says.

According to Subačiutė, inmates over the age of 50 are the most severe cases. So far, however, prison medics have not had to treat life-threatening cases. Most of the younger convicts are asymptomatic, the healthcare administrator adds.

The biggest problem is their refusal to get tested.

“If convicts feel symptoms, they come willingly. […] But there are not many such cases. [Inmates] do not take the virus very seriously,” Subačiutė says.

Ostanavičius adds that the National Public Health Centre (NVSC) has recommended testing all convicts and staff members inside the facility. But Vilnius Penitentiary might not fulfil the recommendation because of detainees’ unwillingness to cooperate.

“If we tested everyone, we would understand the seriousness of the situation,” Ostinavičius says. “But some convicts refuse to get tested. They have a right to refuse. But then, the NVSC recommendation will not be implemented, and the danger will remain.”

The walls of the prison’s living quarters are covered with posters instructing about Covid-19 and safety measures. Still, inmates find the instructions wanting.

“They started writing complaints en masse, asking to explain everything to them. It is their right. But we have explained everything. […] Sometimes, all they want is a written response. So we write to calm them down,” Ostanavičius says.

According to him, however, the inmates’ dissatisfaction can be justified, because Vilnius Penitentiary cannot provide them with the best conditions for quarantining.“If a convict is diagnosed with the coronavirus, we isolate him inside the facility. We try to place him in a separate cell or with other infected convicts,” Ostanavičius says. “But the infrastructure of our institution is such that around 300 convicts live in dormitory-type premises. Up to 10 people live in one cell. So we cannot guarantee a 100-percent isolation,” he adds.

The deputy director of Vilnius Penitentiary says that the movement of Covid-19 infected inmates is minimal. But they can use the phone or walk in the fresh air for an hour each day. The facility had to reorganise walkways to separate healthy convicts from those diagnosed with coronavirus, according to Ostanavičius.

Vladimir is one of the inmates of Vilnius Penitentiary. He feels that no one is protected from the coronavirus inside the facility.

“I got tested. Sometimes I doubt whether all of this is real. But getting sick still sounds scary,” Vladimir says.

“We have personal protective equipment, including masks, shields, and costumes. But sometimes I think that [getting sick] is inevitable,” he adds.

According to Ostanavičius, coronavirus has changed the reality of both prison workers and inmates. The staff must always wear protective equipment. Detainees, meanwhile, can only see their relatives via video calls.

For Christmas, the inmates received small presents, but were not able to celebrate together.

“On Christmas Eve, they will get small presents – some cake, tangerines, sweets. They were also allowed to decorate their cells. But that is all for Christmas at the penitentiary this year,” Ostanavičius said before the holidays.